Insights into the “lost tribe” Jewish communities in India and Myanmar

In 2017, while traveling in India, a friend from the northeastern state of Assam told me about the lost tribe Jewish communities in neighboring Mizoram state. Growing up in a Jewish family without ever fully embracing the religion of my practicing parents, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

The Jews of the Lost Tribes, I soon learned, believe they are descended from the 10 tribes of Israel that were exiled from the ancient kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians around the 8th century BC I photograph their rituals and their daily life.

A few weeks later, I arrived in Aizawl, a town built on top of densely forested hills. I called a contact from one of the local congregations and set up a meeting. When two representatives arrived at my hostel, I explained my interest in their community and my wish to photograph their religious services and rituals. They seemed open to the idea but did not commit; they should talk to the other members before telling me their decision. The next morning they called and said that one of the worshipers had passed away and invited me to photograph the funeral.

After the funeral, members of Shalom Tzion Synagogue welcomed me to their community with an enthusiasm that I had never encountered before in any of my documentary projects – and neither have I since. They had only limited contact with other Jews and had never met a photographer interested in their community before. There was a mutual curiosity between us and I found myself answering many questions they had about my upbringing and life in Israel, where I had worked for several years as a photographer and journalist.

One of the members of the Aizawl congregation was from Chin State in western Myanmar. He told me about a small group of Jews from the lost tribe in Kalay, a small town in the Sagaing region of his homeland. After my stay in Aizawl, I decided to find myself there.

After a grueling series of bus rides lasting over 24 hours, I arrived in Kalay – a flat tropical town surrounded by vast farmland – and was greeted by a few members of the Lost Tribe. I was sleep deprived and dizzy from the trip, but they informed me that the whole community was anxiously awaiting my arrival at their synagogue. We went by motorbike.

The temple, just outside the city, was a two-story wooden building with thatched bamboo walls and a tin roof, surrounded by fields. Inside, I met the 20 or so community members who quickly asked me to deliver a speech which, after spending time with the Lost Tribe communities in Mizoram and responding to similar requests, n wasn’t entirely unexpected.

I managed to put a few words together in my haggard state and then was treated to a delicious meal that had been prepared by the community in the backyard of the temple.

The community there – which dates back to the 1980s when a group of Christians converted to Judaism – was more isolated than those I had come to know in India. They had never met a foreigner before, they said, let alone someone who was both Jewish and interested in photographing their community. And yet, again, I felt a mutual curiosity and had intimate access to their lives.

Jews from the lost tribe of northeast India and northwest Myanmar are a small minority, numbering less than 10,000, by some estimates. They easily miss the Christian and Buddhist populations of the region.

Many communities of the lost tribe of northern India formed in the 1950s. British missionaries had converted most of the local population to Christianity, and some of the converts saw ritual connections to their ancient practices. and those of the ancient Jews whom they had heard of in the Old Testament.

Eventually, the belief that their ancestors were a tribe of Israelites in exile began to spread.

In the 1970s, thousands of people from the Shinlung tribe of northeastern India began to adopt the practices and rituals of the Jewish faith. With the help of Eliyahu Avichail, a rabbi who traveled the world in search of lost tribe communities, some began to settle in Israel – not without facing the skepticism of Israelis who questioned their motivations, their sincerity and their historical links with Judaism.

Rabbi Avichail named the group Bnei Menashe, meaning Son of Manasseh, who was one of the 10 lost tribes.

The Jews I met in Aizawl told me that they face some discrimination in India. It is difficult for them, for example, to find a job that allows them time off to observe the Jewish Sabbath and other holidays. Many of the Lost Tribe have said they no longer feel out of place in their homelands. Almost all of them have expressed a desire to make their alyah – to immigrate to Israel, the land they believe to be their true homeland, as God has promised them.

Over the past 30 years, thousands of members of the lost tribe communities of northeast India have moved to Israel – in part because in 2005 the Bnei Menashe were officially declared descendants of the tribe d origin of Manasseh.

Initially, I was interested in how the Jews of the Lost Tribe were redefining what it means to be Jewish – by asserting their faith and gaining acceptance by the Israeli government. The existence of these communities complicates notions of Jewish identity while emphasizing its malleability.

But as I spent time photographing and talking with members of the Lost Tribes, I was moved by the sincerity with which they brought the Jewish faith into their lives.

And lately, I find myself remembering the morning I spent photographing Shabbat services at the Kalay Temple – and how the Hebrew prayers of the congregation mingled with the sounds of church bells and Buddhist chants ringing in the hall. far.

Daniel tepper is a New York-based photojournalist. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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